Sustainability

Farmers for Soil Health

Farmers are front-line caretakers of the land who work every day to conserve our natural resources. Doing so allows them to remain economically and environmentally sustainable, producing food, feed, fiber and renewable fuel for a growing world population.

Farmers are strengthened by learning and working with other farmers and creating key partnerships to improve their operations. Checkoff programs are one of those partnerships that return value to the farm while collectively working to reach goals that go beyond a single farm operation.

In the fall of 2018, the United Soybean Board, the National Pork Board and the National Corn Growers Association signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). This MOU established a framework for the three organizations to collaborate on sustainability research and programming. As work progressed, the organizations recognized the need for an initiative that would help farmers continue down the path of continuous improvement.

The initiative they formed is Farmers for Soil Health (FSH).

FSH complements the goals and direction of each organization because most farmers who grow corn also grow soybeans. And one half of pork’s environmental footprint comes from the production of corn and soybean meal,  the cornerstones of most feed rations. Consequently, the natural partnership will address future demand for sustainable pork fed with sustainably produced soy and corn.

The mission of FSH is to advance adoption of conservation practices with a focus on highlighting the agronomic and economic benefits of climate smart production systems — especially those incorporating the use of cover crops. Increased use of cover crops advances each organization toward its sustainability goals, while also providing long-term agronomic and economic benefits to farmers.

Long-term use of cover crops has demonstrated significant savings for farmers in fertilizer[1] and herbicide costs[2], as well as improvements in water-holding capacity and infiltration rates.[3] Cover crops also increase organic matter and sequester carbon.

FSH’s goal is to double corn and soybean acres using cover crops to 30 million acres by 2030.

The Soil Health Institute estimates if cover crops increase gradually, eventually meeting this goal, it would:

  • Increase carbon sequestered in soils by about 7 million metric tons[4]
  • Reduce erosion by 105 metric tons[5]
  • Reduce nitrogen loss to groundwater by 272 million pounds[6]

FSH will provide financial and technical assistance, education programs in targeted states to encourage adoption of conservation practices including the use of cover crops. The 20 priority states in the FSH focus area represent nearly 160 million corn and soybean acres.

Organizations collaborating with FSH include the Soil Health Institute, the National Association of Conservation Districts, the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at the University of Missouri, the Sustainability Consortium, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Terry Cosby, chief, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, attended this year’s Commodity Classic and announced a $1 million cooperative agreement through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. FSH will use this agreement to accelerate adoption of cover crops in soybean and corn production. Funding for interested state commodity organizations will begin this summer which will help build capacity to support farmers considering adoption of cover crops and reduced tillage practices.

During a recent USDA Soil Health Workshop, FSH highlighted collaborative efforts that could be supported through the USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities grant process. Support from that program could fund a major cost share and technical assistance effort focused on cover crop adoption in 20 corn and soybean-producing states. That support also could finance partnerships to support the production of climate-smart commodities.

To learn more about the FSH initiative, please visit www.farmersforsoilhealth.com

[1] Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education: https://www.sare.org/publications/cover-crop-economics/an-in-depth-look-at-management-situations-where-cover-crops-pay-off-faster/when-fertilizer-costs-are-high-or-manure-nutrients-need-to-be-sequestered/

[2] Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education: https://www.sare.org/publications/cover-crop-economics/an-in-depth-look-at-management-situations-where-cover-crops-pay-off-faster/when-herbicide-resistant-weeds-are-a-problem/

[3] Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education: https://www.sare.org/publications/cover-crop-economics/an-in-depth-look-at-management-situations-where-cover-crops-pay-off-faster/when-soil-moisture-is-at-a-deficit-or-irrigation-is-needed/

[4] Chambers, A., Lal, R., & Paustian, K. 2016. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation May 2016, 71 (3) 68A-74A; DOI: 10.2489/jswc.71.3.68A

[5] USDA-NRCS National Soil Erosion Results Tables, 2007. and USDA-SARE Cover Crop Research Series, Cover Crops at Work, Covering the Soil to Prevent Erosion. July, 2017.  Data comes from a bibliography compiled by SARE and the University of Missouri.

[6] USDA-NRCS, 1995.  Fate and Transport of Nutrients: Nitrogen and USDA-ERS  Fertilizer Use and Price, 2019, and Iowa State Extension, 2014 Reducing Nutrient Loss: Science Shows What Works.

John Johnson

Coordinator

Farmers for Soil Health

John Johnson is the coordinator for Farmers for Soil Health. He is a principal at Agricola, LLC and the former chief operating officer for the National Pork Board.